The Stories of Impact series features school leaders who are not just speaking about what they are doing but also how and why they are doing it. In essence, they are describing their journey toward a shift in school culture that can be observed at many levels. My role is to help the system see itself, and in so doing, support schools to move from talking about change to practicing deeper change together. This is one small piece of that puzzle.
Thadd Rimer is an Assistant Principal (Years 5-9) and the Berry Street Education Model (BSEM) Leader at Doveton College.
In this interview with me, Thadd reflects on the way a common BSEM language and implementation approach has contributed to shifting school culture and lifting student expectations.
Located in South-East Melbourne, Doveton College is the first government school designed to meet the needs of children from birth to Year 9 and their families. The College offers adult education programs, as part of its focus on building a stronger community for the benefit of its students.
Jack Greig: Tell us about the Doveton community. How does the community inform your teaching approach at Doveton?
Thadd Rimer: Community is a part of everything we do here. Any time you walk into our school you see parents, community members, allied health services. We even have an early learning centre.
We believe parent and community engagement with the school, as well as community partnerships best enable students to see a pathway forward. Doveton only goes to Year 9 but partnerships then continue with links to secondary schools, TAFE and VCAL partners.
Community is also big here because of the adult learning that’s happening at the college. On any given morning you can walk around and see school classes and adult learning classes all happening at the same time.
We also have after hours programs for the community like ‘Men of Doveton’ and ‘Women of Doveton’. These are programs aimed towards people who need something extra in their lives. A Doveton program is also run with the YMCA for young males to teach them about mental health issues and budgeting, among other areas. We also support community members to peer-coach, and parents to learn from external coaches who are specialists in sport, dance, theatre, or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).
Community is a huge part of our school.
We’re sharing strategies we’re working on at school that could be used at home to help kids throughout their whole day.
JG: How has your experience working with the Berry Street Education Model (BSEM) been reflected in what you do with community?
TR: We have held a couple of one-hour sessions with parents and carers, letting them know what the Berry Street Education Model is. We also have been asking parents to start using some of the language that we’re using here. We’re sharing strategies we’re working on at school that could be used at home to help kids throughout their whole day. Specifically, when issues pop up, we are teaching how we can best de-escalate in these situations.
JG: Has that parent-school collaboration been important to finding your way through challenging relationships?
Yes – this partnership is essential. We have a strong leadership team and year level coordinators who are not afraid to call parents and say, “this is what we’re asking”. We build our educational learning plans with parents and students, of which the Focus Plan (a personalised plan with strategies that help the child to de-escalate) is now a part.
The Focus Plan includes what students tell us they need when they become escalated, or anxious, or stressed. So instead of us just telling parents what students need, it’s coming from the students.
…the mindset of our teachers changed as they realised that we weren’t asking anyone to run individual lessons on BSEM content but rather to place it inside their lessons so that students can understand while learning.
JG: You’ve said publicly that the year after you completed the Berry Street Education Model, you moved from doing the model to embedding it across everything that the college does. What did that shift entail?
TR: Initially there was a bit of a pushback from staff. They viewed the BSEM lessons as something extra they had to include in their lessons. That is, that BSEM took away time from what they were already doing in their classrooms.
To address this, we formed a joint leadership process in our second year (2017). The goal was to help teachers find teachable moments throughout their lessons. It was dedicated support so teachers could embed the BSEM language and strategies within their lessons, so that students heard the language and understood the approach.
We began asking teachers to find 10 minutes across their day to include mini-lessons on strategies, such as resilience. For instance, when teaching maths, students are going to fail a lot when they are working through problems because problem solving is not always easy. So, in that context students must fail before they succeed. When teachers plan to use this kind of example as a mini-lesson it can be very effective.
Another example would be if the class needs to de-escalate before quality learning can be done. When the teacher stops the lesson for a moment and spends five minutes concentrating on de-escalation there are huge learning benefits for the rest of the lesson.
For Doveton it was the language shift and actively preparing for those moments to maximise the quality of classroom time. I think the mindset of our teachers changed as they realised that we weren’t asking anyone to run individual lessons on BSEM content but rather to place it inside their lessons so that students can understand while learning. That was like a lightbulb moment for a lot of people and we’ve seen drastic changes since then.
JG: You mentioned language; how important has it been to develop a common language around implementation?
TR: Language was invaluable. There was no way we could have done it without a common language. We started the training with a common phrase, which was the language that everyone at the school agreed upon and that was ‘Track the Speaker’ (practice placing your whole focus and attention on the speaker) and I think it’s something that I’ve heard in many different masterclasses and Berry Street trainings. It made sense to us.
When you look at it in terms of a school and a classroom: if you’re a Prep student and a Year 9 teacher is talking to you, and they are using familiar language, then that Prep student is going to be less likely to feel escalated because they don’t know the person. And vice versa. If you’re a Prep teacher you say to a Year 9 student, “you need to take a couple of belly breaths to help you de-escalate,” the student will understand. That’s valuable in a P-9 school where you must, at times, have primary school teachers deal with secondary school issues. It helps for us in building relationships across the school.
Now we have teachers who know how to work with challenging behaviours.
JG: How might you describe the school culture now?
TR: There’s a lot of things that have contributed to improve our school culture but the Berry Street Education Model has made the biggest difference.
To paraphrase a quote from the ‘Restorative Practice vs Fair Consequences’ masterclass; “Twenty-five per cent of teachers stop teaching because of burnout. Self-care may just be a band aid without also changing the pedagogy.”
The Berry Street Education Model has changed our pedagogy. Those teachers who said, “I can’t teach these kids because they’re not listening,” have now changed their language and approach to, “there are some strategies I need to use to help these students engage. They are having a hard time and we need to be the ones to give them tools to de-escalate and self-regulate.”
This improvement in our pedagogy has changed the culture. When I first started, teachers would sometimes say, “I don’t know how to deal with them.” And now those same teachers will look at different strategies, collaborate with different people in the school, find what they need to improve and move forward. Now we have teachers who know how to work with challenging behaviours.
And it’s not just the kids with traumatic backgrounds that this is helping. It’s pushing our higher-level students to extend themselves more because we’re finding ways for all students to improve, to learn more about themselves and their goals no matter their background. With building stamina, we are finding our students are wanting to extend themselves even further than before.
JG: That’s exciting! What are your personal reflections on the journey of building school culture?
TR: We have a leadership team who all believed in BSEM and the advantages it has for the school but also for us as adults. This consistency has made the process much easier.
The biggest issue for us now – and it’s a good issue to have – is that our students are now expecting more from us. Not only are they expecting more of themselves, but they are also expecting more from their teachers. And our journey forward is around finding what those students need in any specific year and then tailoring our focus and learning.
We have also engaged our student leadership as part of the discussion and that helps drive common language. Our students run our assemblies themselves and one of the first things they tell everybody is to remember to ‘Track the Speaker’. They use it with their teachers and they use it with each other.
JG: Thank you, Thadd.
“Story is a tool for building community through empathy and coherence. It enables people to connect across difference and to generate narratives that hold together groups, organisations, and movements.” – Ella Saltmarshe
This blog post was originally published on Berry Street’s The Good Childhood Blog here. It is the second of BSEM’s Stories of Impact series. The series will be featured on The Good Childhood blog throughout 2019.